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Student-Cadets earn diplomas, officers’ bars

Ethan Wagnon and Caitlyn Edwards commissioned as 2nd lieutenantsMixing military discipline with college life isn’t the most common choice of Stetson students, but that’s precisely why a handful of special individuals choose the path. They seek an uncommon collegiate goal that includes a bachelor’s degree and a gleaming gold pair of U.S. Army lieutenant’s bars.

Only two of 682 graduates this year chose that difficult and rewarding path.

The double distinction marks the single-minded dedication of Caitlyn Amelia Edwards and Ronald Ethan Wagnon. Gold bars were pinned to their uniforms in a May 10 commissioning ceremony; their degrees were awarded May 11.

Combat tactics, marksmanship, drills and exhausting field exercises were mixed with traditional classroom subjects for the ROTC cadets. The dual life of student and cadet is extremely difficult and extraordinarily demanding, they said.

“No one really understands what we have to do,” said Wagnon, an American studies major from Inverness, Fla. “I had a full day of work before the average student woke up. I rarely had time for anything other than ROTC and school these past four years.”

“It’s such a huge commitment of time. Not many people realize that,” said Edwards, an environmental science major from Chuluota, Fla. “We have to be willing to give up weekends, be up at 0500 every morning, and ready to go at a moment’s notice. We essentially have a fulltime job while keeping up with schoolwork. We’re always tired.”

The double life set them apart, they said, and drove them to be more and do more than what’s expected of other students. Cadets learn to wring every productive moment from every hour of the day.

“We’re already in the professional stage of our lives when most student are still learning how to wake up and go to class,” said Wagnon.

The student/cadets are following different military objectives.

Edwards, who played varsity volleyball, is going into the Army Reserves. After officer training and Corps of Engineers training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., she’ll return and seek a civilian job in engineering and environment. She’ll train one weekend a month and two weeks every summer.

Wagnon, who tutored underprivileged children, is headed for active duty as an airborne infantry officer. He’ll train in officer leadership at Georgia’s Fort Benning and attend Ranger School before Signal Corps deployment. His goal is to lead soldiers in combat. Long term, he’s interested in military chaplaincy or computer technology.

Raised on a Georgia ranch of cattle and horses, Wagnon’s early childhood included rodeos and farm chores. His drive and discipline, he said, comes primarily from his widowed entrepreneurial mother.

“She was the only parent I knew. Her constant hard work and self-sacrifice will always be an example I strive for,” said Wagnon. “My family and friends don’t accept anything less than perfection.”

Born on a Georgia military base into a military family, Edwards has lived and traveled in many countries. Her ROTC choice meant following family tradition and a lifestyle she knows. Her father’s career was army aviation; her brother is an army engineer and her sister is in the Military Intelligence Corps.

“My family had a huge impact on the person I am today,” she said. “Watching my brother, sister, dad and other family members in the military has really prepared me for the outside world. I’ve seen their experiences first-hand and with their help and advice, I know I’ll be able to handle anything. I want to be a good leader.”

Her leadership abilities, self-confidence and time management skills are far stronger because of her Stetson experience, she said. “And I’m a happier person, too.”

Upper level ROTC courses are taught at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. The commute ate away at precious academic time.

“Caitlyn had to juggle classes between Daytona Beach and DeLand every semester. The rigorous schedule demanded a great deal of creative curricular management, but she managed a fine course of study,” said J. Anthony Abbott, Ph.D., geography and environmental science chair.

“Ethan always had insightful comments to make in class and did a great job pulling together knowledge from different courses in a truly interdisciplinary way,” said Emily Mieras, Ph.D., associate professor of history and American studies.

“I’ve learned a surprisingly simple lesson during the last four years,” said Wagnon. “I’ve learned to accept help. There’s been a lot of good people in my four years here who helped pave my success.”

Success for Edwards and Wagnon came when they received their diploma and 2nd lieutenant’s bars amid pomp and ceremony marking the end of undergraduate studies.

“Stetson has been a great experience,” said Edwards. It has been hard and trying at times, but I just kept telling myself it would all be worth it in the end to pin on my gold bars, and then to walk across that stage to graduate. I’m proud to be one of the less than one percent who serve this country and to follow in my family’s footsteps.”

“I’ve waited for this moment since I was 12,” said Wagnon. “I am stoked to get these bars, but I’m also focused on what’s next, looking forward to my blue infantry cord, and my first platoon. These bars mean a lot, but they’re only the beginning.”

That’s true for both of Stetson’s student-cadet graduates.

By Ronald Williamson